Tag Archives: realistic

Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

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Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp
Sourcebooks Fire, January 2018

A creepily atmospheric YA paranormal chiller which draws much of its menace from its setting in a tiny tight-knit community in the wilds of Alaska during the long winter when there are few hours of daylight. Corey returns to Lost Creek, “an almost all-white conservative town with little room for wayward girls,” for the funeral of Kyra, her troubled best friend and almost immediately realizes it was a suicide not an accident. Corey becomes increasingly troubled by the town inhabitants’ attitude towards Kyra in both life and death and, even though she herself left only a few months ago, their closing against her as an “outsider.” This is interspersed with flashbacks to the previous two years during which Kyra’s alternate manic episodes and depressions had become increasingly severe. Niekamp (This Is Where It Ends, 2016) draws nuanced portraits of both bipolar Kyra, looking only for acceptance of herself as she is, and Corey, convincingly conflicted between being there for her friend and craving normality. Some interesting sub-plots around sexuality are undeveloped and the novel occasionally breaks into a screenplay format for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, this will appeal to teens who enjoy magical realism with a side of eerie. Reviewed from an ARC.

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The Border by Steve Schafer

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The Border by Steve Schafer
Sourcebooks Fire, 2017

After their families are gunned down by a drug gang, four teens attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert from Mexico into the US in this intense but flawed YA novel.

Characterization is thin but serviceable: Pato is the thoughtful narrator, his cousin and best friend Arbo is dependable, Marcos is a tough guy and his independent sister, Gladys, is Pato’s somewhat perfunctory love interest.

The trek, which forms the bulk of the narrative, is grueling as the teens run out of water in the intense heat and have run-ins with both human and animal predators, all the while having little idea what they will face if they make it to the US.

Debut author Schafer’s note details his research and he successfully puts a human face on undocumented immigration, but he has also unfortunately focused on all the negative stereotypes of Mexico: drug cartels, corruption, and “illegal passage”. Spanish is mostly used for cursing.

While it is important for American teen readers to have more context to aid understanding of what drives immigrants, the novel does both readers and immigrants a disservice by focusing on this “single story.” Reviewed from an ARC.

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Walden Pond, 2017

This middle grade story of nine self-sufficient orphans on a mysterious island can be read as a low key fantasy and/or an allegory of the unfettered joys of childhood and the looming responsibilities of maturity. It reminded me, in some respects of Jerry Spinelli’s Hokey Pokey but I found it way more appealing than Spinelli’s nonsense and think it could get some MG readers.

Every year, a boat arrives on orphan Island carrying a very young child. The young child is taken into the care of the second oldest of the 9 residents and the oldest one gets onto the boat to embark for who knows where physically, but adulthood metaphorically.

Life on the island is blissfully easy. Food is abundant, the wildlife is unharmful, it only rains at night, and even the wind throws the kids back onto land if they jump off a cliff. However, there is a strict unwritten structure and set of rules passed down from all the previous residents, which the children follow religiously (deliberate choice of word there).

Jinny was heartbroken when Deen left the island, leaving her as the Elder taking care of the new girl Ess. She isn’t very good at teaching Ess what she needs to know – reading and swimming – nor is she very good at training Ben, the next in line, on how to be an Elder. Jinny doesn’t want to follow the rules and when she breaks one of the most important ones, life on the island becomes out of joint.

Jinny rings true as a conflicted pre-adolescent and her relationship with her young charge, Ess, is delightfully imperfect; however, the other characters, who have a variety of different skin, hair and eye colors, are just sketched in.

I found some of the metaphors a trifle heavy handed – the entrance of snakes to this garden of Eden and Jinny’s long swim away from the island – but maybe this wouldn’t be the case for the intended audience.

Many questions are unanswered  who sends them to the island? What do they go back to? who set up this home? are they really orphans? – but the ending, bringing the story full circle, feels complete.

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A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck

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A Short History of the Girl Next Door by Jared Reck
Knopf, Sept 2017

Matt and Tabby have been friends forever, but as they start high school Matt is hiding that he is in love with her, though she does not reciprocate. In fact, she starts dating handsome senior Luke, star athlete and all round nice guy so Matt puts himself in a self-imposed competition with Luke both for Tabby and on the basketball court. When a tragedy strikes, Matt goes off the emotional rails.

Debut author Reck is following a well-trodden path for his first novel (in fact, Kirkus notes many similarities with John Green’s Waiting for Alaska), and up until the tragedy occurs, while I was happy to read the engagingly written book, I was not finding anything out of the ordinary. It is only when Matt is plunged into grief that the book moves tentatively out of the ‘so what?’ zone. Reck has written with authority and insight into the anger that can be part of grieving; Matt is a mess but is powerless to change, though ultimately, with the intervention of his eccentric grandfather and his inspirational English teacher, Matt moves towards a gradual resolution.

Matt’s narration gives the novel some character and the stylistic devices add a nice layer of trimming – Matt views things as though he’s directing a movie of his life and he makes some smart comments on modern romantic movie tropes. However, the other, all white, characters are largely undeveloped stereotypes.

So not a lot to see here, but YA fans of sad stories might enjoy it.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart

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Genuine Fraud by e. lockhart
Delacorte, 2017

I loved  both e. lockhart’s previous novels The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2009) and We Were Liars (2014), (though I read them both before I began blogging so no reviews to link to) so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of her latest, Genuine Fraud and I LOVED this one too!

Jule West Williams is the enigma at the heart of this riveting thriller that opens with the police tracking her down in Mexico and then moves backward to peel away the layers of how Jule got there.

She is an amoral heroine who likens herself to Jason Bourne, James Bond, and “a lone vigilante, a superhero in repose.” Though she is opportunistic, a fluent liar, and without scruples, Jule is still a somewhat sympathetic character, though she herself would not care too much about that. Her identity is fluid, both in terms of the disguises she dons and more deeply: “She could feel the stories she told herself and the stories she told others shifting around, overlapping, changing shades.” The supporting characters are much less developed because Jule only sees others in relation to herself and what they can do for her.

The narrative is driven by the mystery of who Jule really is and what she has done and lockhart acknowledges its debt to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.  The prose is hardboiled, cool, and a little detached and overtly conjures up modern day movie tropes as well as using more subtle imagery of femme fatales from film noir.

The author plays with gender stereotypes showing Jule taking advantage of the assumption that “small, cute women were harmless” as she happily acknowledges that “to be a physically powerful women – it was something. You could go anywhere, do anything, if you were difficult to hurt.” The only chink in her armor is when she starts to fall for Paolo, but she has already booby trapped that relationship before it even starts.

At the end, Jule is triumphant: “I am the center of the story now… I don’t have to weigh very little, wear very little, or have my teeth fixed.” Ideal for teen readers who don’t want soft and cuddly and who appreciate a young woman who has no hesitation in grabbing what she wants.

Reviewed from an ARC.

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017

10-year old Sandra and her family were in a refugee camp in Burundi when it was attacked and 166 refugees were murdered, including Sandra’s six-year old sister Deborah. Over the next ten years, as Sandra’s family moved to Rwanda and then the USA, they never discussed this loss or shared their feelings on the massacre and it was only when Sandra had a breakdown in her sophomore year at college that they finally open up.

With a brief overview of how colonialism left her tribe, the Banyamulenge, stateless and “always in limbo”, Sandra matter of factly describes her early life in the Democratic Republic of Congo where “war was part of our everyday life.” In a very tense scene, her family escapes from the DRC when ethnic conflict bubbles over, only to end up in an empty field in Gatumba in Burundi where the UNHCR builds a refugee camp. Following the massacre, the family moves to Rwanda where they live in desperate poverty until getting the “golden ticket” to go to America,

But their arrival in the USA is not the happy end of the story that the family (and possibly the reader) assumed. Though the threat of ethnic slaughter is removed, the family faces hostility and indifference to their struggles. Even Sandra’s thirst for education is dampened by the lack of understanding she faces in school. Her frustration at people’s ignorance of Africa and the plight of refugees pushes her to tell her family’s story to increasingly large and high profile meetings and conferences, and her advocacy gives her life a focus.

The workmanlike, though unsophisticated, prose conveys Sandra’s despair, confusion and outrage, and then her later passion for her cause. Sandra’s feeling of being an outsider wherever she is comes across strongly, particularly when she describes being unable to relate to her classmates in her US middle and high schools where “your skin color defines you.”

There is a small collection of photographs of survivors of the massacre and their stories, as well as some joyful family scenes of graduations, weddings, and trips back to Africa. One heartbreaking fuzzy image is the only photo left of Deborah – the family’s album was lost in Gatumba.

Sandra comes to realize that Americans are not uncaring, “they just didn’t know our story.” Her quest to show that refugees, are just like them “with hobbies and dreams and talents” is continued in this memoir, which will give teen readers a timely and accessible insight into the human face of refugees.

Grit by Gillian French

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Grit by Gillian French
HarperTeen, 2017.

This evocative realistic YA story of secrets and small mindedness in a small white working class Maine town, Sasanoa, centers around rising high school senior Darcy Prentiss, a young woman with a reputation.

Rumors are rife and knowing about what Darcy was doing last year when her ex-best friend Rhiannon disappeared. Darcy’s loyalty to her family and her streak of independence means she won’t tell the truth because she’s keeping the secret of her cognitively disadvantaged cousin Nell.

The author wonderfully imbues the claustrophobia of the dead end town and its old fashioned, but not in a good way, views of how girls should behave. This setting reminded me of Kara Thomas’s Little Monsters, though the plot is more romance and less mystery.

Self-aware narrator Darcy and her family crackle off the page with life and seething resentments. I particularly appreciated Aunt Libby whose bitterness embodies all of the town’s phoniness, and Darcy’s sister Mags who knows who she is and expects Darcy to live up to those standards. There are other characters who are rooting for Darcy, even if she initially doesn’t recognize it.

Several storylines weave through the novel and each of them connects to Sasanoa’s attitudes towards those who are different: Rhiannon’s disappearance, tension between local teens and migrant workers as they harvest blueberries, Darcy’s fledgling romance with a boy who isn’t just interested in hooking up, and the competition for pageant queen which both Darcy and her mentally challenged cousin Nell are entered in. The strands all gradually converge and the hypocrisies of the town are laid bare as Darcy, with the support of others, disentangles herself from what other people’s opinions have made her.

Ideal for teens who enjoy novels driven by gutsy young women and laced with cultural consciousness.